Google Developing New Measure of Skin Tones to Curb Bias in Products

Alphabet’s Google told Reuters this week it is developing an alternative to the industry standard method for classifying skin tones. A growing chorus of technology researchers and dermatologists says is inadequate for evaluating.

At issue is a six-colour scale known as Fitzpatrick Skin Type (FST), which dermatologists have used since the 1970s. Tech companies now rely on it to categorise people and measure whether products perform equally well across skin tones.

Critics say FST, which includes four categories for “white” skin and one apiece for “black” and “brown,” disregards diversity. Researchers at the US Department of Homeland Security, during a federal technology standards conference last October, recommended abandoning FST for evaluating facial recognition because it poorly represents colour range in diverse populations.

Numerous types of products offer palettes far richer than FST. Crayola last year launched 24 skin tone crayons, and Mattel’s Barbie Fashionistas dolls this year cover nine tones.

The issue is far from academic for Google. When the company announced in February that cameras on some Android phones could measure pulse rates via a fingertip, it said readings on average would err by 1.8 percent regardless of whether users had light or dark skin.

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Starting Point

The late Harvard University dermatologist Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick invented the scale to personalie ultraviolet radiation treatment for psoriasis, an itchy skin condition. He grouped the skin of “white” people as Roman numerals I to IV by asking how much sunburn or tan they developed after certain periods in sun.

A decade later came type V for “brown” skin and VI for “black.” The scale is still part of US regulations for testing sunblock products, and it remains a popular dermatology standard for assessing patients’ cancer risk and more.

Some dermatologists say the scale is a poor and overused measure for care, and often conflated with race and ethnicity.

“Many people would assume I am skin type V, which rarely to never burns, but I burn,” said Dr. Susan Taylor, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist who founded Skin of Color Society in 2004 to promote research on marginalised communities. “To look at my skin hue and say I am type V does me disservice.”

Technology companies, until recently, were unconcerned. Unicode, an industry association overseeing emojis, referred to FST in 2014 as its basis for adopting five skin tones.

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The judgment of the raters is central. Facial recognition software startup AnyVision last year gave celebrity examples to raters.

Microsoft acknowledged FST’s imperfections. Apple said it tests on humans across skin tones using various measures, FST only at times amid them. Garmin said due to wide-ranging testing it believes readings are reliable.

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